A review will determine "whether the leases should be reaffirmed, voided, or subject to additional mitigation measures," a government statement said

By Virginia Chamlee
June 02, 2021 02:10 PM
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Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska
| Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty

In its latest rebuke of Trump-era policies, the Biden administration on Tuesday announced it had suspended oil and gas drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The suspension comes six months after President Joe Biden, on his first day in office, issued an executive order temporarily banning the leases.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the Interior Department announced that the agency would oversee a comprehensive environmental analysis of drilling on the land and was notifying lessees that it was suspending oil and gas leases pending the review.

The review will determine "whether the leases should be reaffirmed, voided, or subject to additional mitigation measures," the statement added.

The Trump administration began auctioning off oil drilling leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge shortly before the former president left office and after Congress passed a law requiring the Interior Department to lease oil from part of the refuge in 2017, when both the House of Representatives and Senate were under Republican control.

Under the previous administration, the Bureau of Land Management held a lease sale on Jan. 6, ultimately issuing "10-year leases on nine tracts covering more than 430,000 acres," the Interior Department said.

The program, which allowed oil companies to drill on the 1.6 million-acre coastal plain that is home to more than 270 different species — including 900 polar bears, 250 musk oxen and 300,000 snow geese — was swiftly condemned by environmentalists.

Scientists have found that the wildlife refuge is already being significantly impacted by climate change and warming twice as fast as any other region on the Earth.

Adam Kolton, the late executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, previously denounced the program in an statement last year.

"Our climate is in crisis, oil prices have cratered, and major banks are pulling out of Arctic financing right and left. And yet the Trump administration continues its race to liquidate our nation's last great wilderness, putting at risk the indigenous peoples and iconic wildlife that depend on it," Kolton said then. "We will continue to fight this at every turn, in the courts, in Congress and in the corporate boardrooms."

Former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has said that the program was "carefully tailored" to minimize its impact on the surrounding environment, telling reporters in August, "I have a remarkable degree of confidence that this can be done in a way that is responsible, sustainable and environmentally benign."

An order signed by current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday cited "legal deficiencies" of the Trump-era program and "inadequacy" of an environmental review conducted under the previous administration.

"Based on those identified deficiencies, the Department of the Interior (Department) will conduct a new, comprehensive analysis o f the potential environmental impacts of the Program and address the identified legal deficiencies," the order from Haaland reads. "While that analysis is pending, I direct a temporary halt on all Department activities related to the Program in the Arctic Refuge."

In a statement released after the Biden administration announced the lease suspensions, the Alaska Wilderness League's acting executive director, Kristen Miller, applauded the decision both for its environmental impact as well as its impact on the Gwich'in tribes that call the area home.

"Suspending these leases is a step in the right direction and we commend the Biden administration for committing to a new program analysis that prioritizes sound science and adequate tribal consultation," Miller said in the statement, adding: "There is still more to be done. Until the leases are canceled, they will remain a threat to one of the wildest places left in America. Now we look to the administration and Congress to prioritize legislatively repealing the oil leasing mandate and restore protections to the Arctic Refuge coastal plain."

Alaska's all-Republican Congressional delegation, however, slammed the suspension of the leases, which were included in the sweeping tax cut passed during Trump's first year in office.

During a confirmation hearing for Haaland in February, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski expressed her opinion that the suspension of the leases amounted to "a definite threat to the resource industry that our state is blessed to be able to host."

In a Wednesday statement jointly released with Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, Rep. Don Young and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Murkowski said the latest decision was expected — "but outrageous nonetheless."